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NHS Lothian and community food networks – adapting to Covid-19 and recovery

This case study provides an overview from NHS Lothian about the contribution that community food networks across the Lothians made towards the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Robbie Snowden is the Senior Health Promotion Specialist (Food and Health) for NHS Lothian. Pre Covid-19, Robbie, with partners across the four local authority areas, found there were dozens of community organisations carrying out community food activities across the Lothians. These varied from food aid and cooking courses, to food distribution hubs and everything in-between.

Robbie’s unique role of working across the Lothians on food and health related issues enabled him to support the development of new or existing food networks, including helping to relaunch these where needed. Each network was developed to suit the needs of the local area and each includes local authority and community and voluntary sector partners as well as NHS Lothian.

  • Edible Edinburgh is an established network that brings together a range of partners to address issues around health, food insecurity, culture, food waste, food growing and the local economy. Edible Edinburgh is part of the UK-wide Sustainable Food Places programme and holds a Bronze Award for its achievements as part of this programme. During the lock-down, Edible Edinburgh partners focusing on food provision became part of a city-wide network led by the local authority and third sector interface to co-ordinate food services.
  • The West Lothian Food Network had just got started a few weeks before the lock-down in March. The Network was made possible by local authority investment and leadership from its anti-poverty service. It aims to improve responses to food insecurity in the area, with over 30 organisations as part of the network working together, led by the West Lothian Food Bank Co-ordinator.
  • East Lothian was in the early stages of setting up a community food network in the area. The Friendly Food network East Lothian was launched in October 2019 with the aim of promoting communication, and providing peer support and training for organisations that address food insecurity and food access in the area.
  • Midlothian has an established Food Alliance led by the local authority that aims to provide dignified approaches to addressing food insecurity through supporting communication, best practice and highlighting opportunities and resources. A re-launch event was scheduled to take place in April 2020.


Each network was at different stages of their development when the UK locked down during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, each network contributed to the responses in their area and provided communication channels for public sector partners, such as Robbie, to tap into to offer support and resources, as well as understanding the community food landscape.


Since the lock-down several published reports demonstrated the crucial role that community organisations played in quickly responding to the needs of local people across Scotland. Two of the main challenges community organisations reported early in the lock-down was around navigating the funding streams available and the co-ordination of responses locally. This improved over time as local authorities were awarded Scottish Government funding to lead on resourcing and co-ordinating food and other welfare services.*

In the Lothians, having established or newly formed networks enabled the local authorities to use these as a conduit to provide or communicate the availability of local authority funding in the early stages of the lock-down. For example:

  • In West Lothian the local authority invited the community food network to submit several joint funding bids throughout the lock-down to respond to Covid-19.
  • In East Lothian, the local authorities developed a new food group consisting of local authority teams, NHS Lothian and the Third Sector Interface. The group were able to use the food network’s contact information to map food provision services and link these with support organisations, such as the Covid-19 resilience groups.

Logistics around procuring, transporting, storing and redistributing large quantities of food were a challenge in all areas of the Lothians. In some local authority areas, Food Hubs were expanded or newly developed to address this. These were used to store and redistribute foods more efficiently. For example:

  • In Edinburgh, Food Hubs were developed in several parts of the city so that city-wide organisations could focus on supplying these with food, and local groups could focus on engaging with and supporting individuals locally.
  • In East Lothian and Midlothian, a Fareshare hub was set up to co-ordinate and expand the redistribution of surplus food to a wider range of organisations.
  • In West Lothian the Food Network-led organisation worked with network members to procure food required for providing services in their communities.


Networks were used to share concerns, provide peer support and offer solutions during this difficult time. For example, the Midlothian Food Alliance brought members together four times over the spring and summer to listen to and note the concerns of members. These were used to plan immediate and longer term support.

Edible Edinburgh was able to make use of its regular contact with the UK wide Sustainable Food Places network to hear about, and share information about how other parts of the UK were managing their response to Covid-19. Edible Edinburgh also provided its own case study about the Edinburgh response to Covid-19 for the Sustainable Food Places website.

Robbie was able to use the networks to distribute Covid-19 food and health information, such as updated advice on Vitamin D, information on diet and healthy weight resources, sharing research and best practice and highlighting available resources.

Other challenges

Network community members across the Lothians had a range of challenges in common, these included:

  • Concern about the over-reliance on volunteers, and keeping volunteers safe and providing them with support.
  • The desire to help people with support beyond food aid and signposting information and the frustration with the lack of capacity to do this.

Statutory partners shared common concerns too, such as:

  • Balancing the need to keep in touch with organisations delivering front-line activities and not burdening people with extra tasks.
  • Keeping track of the huge response from communities to the pandemic, such as newly formed or existing community groups providing food aid or shopping services for the first time. Being aware of these was essential to co-ordinate efforts better and to avoid duplicating support, or not yet reaching others needing it.

Recovery and the future

In all areas of the Lothians, community organisations are either stepping back from Covid-19 related food aid activities or are planning how to develop sustainable and dignified solutions to food insecurity and access to food. All Networks and statutory partners are keen to move away from the need for emergency food aid and wish to increase income maximisation solutions and focus on recovery. For example:

  • In West Lothian, the Network has submitted a joint bid to the local Authority that has a focus on recovery and is working to establish sub-groups to work on key issues such as nutrition and evaluation.
  • The local authority in Midlothian is keen to support the Alliance by mapping food access in the area, and network members are keen to use the network to share best practice, upskill staff, reach more people in need and address issues with the logistics of food storage and distribution.
  • In East Lothian, the Network will get back together to consider their aims and future plans, including considering the continuation or expansion of the Fareshare Hub and resourcing a Network Co-ordinator.
  • In Edinburgh, Edible Edinburgh is working towards the Sustainable Food Places Silver award, and is planning to engage with members and increase its membership to full meet the needs of established and new food-based organisation in the city. The partnerships have set about restructuring governance processes in line with learning for the Covid period.
  • In West Lothian, the Network also plans to support its members with developing their own ‘food visions’ as well as agreeing to a Network ‘food charter’ or ‘pledge’ . The aim of the pledge is to make sure  healthy food choices are always available as part of food aid or other food activities.

Robbie will continue his role of providing support for the networks. He is also currently arranging dietetic student placements within community food initiatives to provide hands-on help and for the students to learn about community food activities.

* A snapshot of Covid-19, food insecurity and community food initiatives.



Published: September 17, 2020